STATE OF NEW YORK

COMMISSION ON JUDICIAL CONDUCT
In the Matter of the Proceeding
Pursuant to Section 44, subdivision 4,
of the Judiciary Law in Relation to
DETERMINATION
LEE L. HOLZMAN,
a Judge of the Surrogate's Court, Bronx
County.
THE COMMISSION:
Honorable Thomas A. Klonick, Chair
Honorable Terry Jane Ruderman, Vice Chair
Honorable Rolando T. Acosta
Joseph W. Belluck, Esq.
Joel Cohen, Esq.
Richard D. Emery, Esq.
Paul B. Harding, Esq.
Nina M. Moore
Honorable Karen K. Peters
l
Richard A. Stoloff, Esq.
Honorable David A. Weinstein
APPEARANCES:
Robert H. Tembeckjian (Mark Levine and Brenda Correa, Of Counsel)
for the Comluission
Godosky and Gentile, P.C. (by David Godosky) for the Respondent
1 Judge Peters resigned from the Commission effective October 15,2012, and Judge Weinstein
was appointed to the Commission on that date. The vote in this matter was taken on September
19, 2012.
The respondent, Lee L. Holzman, a Judge of the Surrogate's Court, Bronx
County, was served with a Formal Written Complaint dated January 4, 2011, containing
four charges. The Formal Written Complaint alleges that: (i) over a 14-year period
respondent approved legal fees to Michael Lippman, counsel to the Public Administrator,
based on affidavits of legal services that did not comply with the Surrogate's Court
Procedure Act ("SCPA") and without consideration of the specified statutory factors
(Charge I); (ii) despite knowing that Mr. Lippman had taken advance legal fees without
court approval and/or fees in excess of Administrative Board Guidelines ("Guidelines"),
respondent failed to report Mr. Lippman to law enforcement and disciplinary authorities
and continued to award Mr. Lippman legal fees at the maXilTIUm amount recommended by
the Guidelines and/or without considering the statutory factors (Charge II); (iii)
respondent failed to adequately supervise court staff (Charge III); and (iv) respondent
failed to disqualify himself from Mr. Lippman's cases notwithstanding that Mr. Lippman
had raised campaign funds for respondent (Charge IV). Respondent filed a verified
answer dated January 21, 2011.
By Order dated January 25, 2011, the Commission designated Honorable
Felice K. Shea as referee to hear and report proposed findings of fact and conclusions of
law. On February 2,2011, respondent filed a motion to dismiss the Formal Written
Complaint and to stay further proceedings. Commission counsel filed papers dated
February 25, 2011, in opposition to the motion, and respondent filed a reply dated March
4, 2011. By order dated March 21, 2011, the Commission denied respondent's motion in
2
all respects.
By letter dated September 12, 2011, respondent waived confidentiality of
the Commission proceedings pursuant to Section 44, subdivision 4, of the Judiciary Law.
A public hearing was held in New York City on September 12
2
and December 14-16 and
19, 2011, and January 3-6, 9-13 and 17, 2012. The Referee filed a report dated July 18,
2012.
The parties submitted briefs with respect to the Referee's report and the
issue of sanctions. Counsel to the Commission recommended the sanction of removal,
and respondent's counsel recommended dismissal. On September 19,2012, the
Commission heard oral argument and thereafter considered the record of the proceeding
and made the following findings of fact.
1. Respondent has been Surrogate of Bronx County since 1988. His
current term expires on December 31, 2012.
2. In 1974 respondent was appointed law secretary to the then Bronx
County Surrogate. He served as head of the Surrogate Court's law department until 1988.
3. As surrogate, respondent has jurisdiction over all proceedings and
actions "relating to the affairs of decedents, probate of wills, [and] administration of
estates" (NY Const Art 6, §12[dD. In New York City, the surrogate appoints a public
2 The hearing was stayed by order of the Supreme Court on September 12, 2011, and further
stayed by the Appellate Division, First Department, on October 5, 2011. The stay was lifted on
December 6, 2011.
3
administrator ("PA") to administer the estates of persons who die intestate without an heir
willing and able to do so (SCPA §1102). Pursuant to sePA §1108(2)(a), New York City
surrogates also appoint counsel to the PA to represent intestate decedents' estates
where no individual is available to file letters of administration. The PAis paid a salary
by the City of New York (SCPA §1105), and counsel is paid "reasonable compensation"
out of the administered estate (SCPA §1108[2][b]). At anyone titne during the years
encompassed by the cOlnplaint, the Bronx PA's office handled between $30 million and
$57 million in estate funds.
4. Michael Lippman began working as counsel to the Bronx County PA
in 1970. During the years respondent served as law secretary to the Bronx Surrogate and
later as head of the Surrogate Court's law department, he knew Mr. Lippman, who
worked in the same courthouse. When respondent was elected surrogate, he retained Mr.
Lippman as counsel to the PA. Mr. Lippman served as counselor associate counsel to the
PA until April 2009, while also maintaining a private practice of law.
5. Mr. Lippman was indicted in Bronx County on July 7,2010, on
charges of Scheme to Defraud 1
8t
degree (1 count), Offering a False Instrument for Filing
1st degree (4 counts), Falsifying Business Records 1
8t
degree (4 counts), Grand Larceny
2
nd
degree (2 counts), Grand Larceny 3
rd
degree (3 counts) and Conflict of Interest (1
count). The charges were based on five cases in which Mr. Lippman represented the
Bronx PA's office.
4
As to Charge I of the Formal Written Complaint:
6. The charge is not sustained and therefore is dismissed.
As to Charge II of the Formal Written Complaint:
7. In early 2006 respondent asked for the resignation of PA Esther
Rodriguez after learning that she had violated respondent's order not to use a particular
vendor, who was under investigation by the Department of Investigation ("DOl") and was
aboutto be indicted.
8. Shortiy after the PA's resignation in January 2006, respondent asked
Deputy PA Steven Alfasi about problems in the PA's office. Mr. Alfasi told respondent
that Mr. Lippman was "problematic" and "was running the office or trying to run the
office as if it was his own." Mr. Alfasi also advised respondent that: (i) Mr. Lippman had
requested and been paid legal fees before accountings were filed, and (ii) the PA's
accountant, Paul Rubin, had reported that there were negative estate balances totaling
$300,000 to $400,000 as a result of advance legal fees paid to Mr. Lippman.
9. During the time period relevant to the Formal Written Complaint, it
had been a longstanding policy in the Bronx PA's office, pursuant to a directive of the
surrogate, that 750/0 of the legal fee could be paid when the accounting was filed
(generally at least seven months after letters of administration issued) and the remaining
25% would be held in escrow until the decree. This policy had been followed by
respondent's predecessor, and respondent continued the policy upon becoming surrogate.
The purpose of the protocol was to give counsel an incentive to act expeditiously in
5
handling estates and, further, to ensure that in the event that counsel failed to complete
the work on an estate, funds would be available for another attorney to do so. Legal fees
were paid by check issued by the PA.
10. Under guidelines promulgated in 2002 by the Administrative Board
for the Offices of the Public Administrators pursuant to SCPA §1128, fee requests by PA
counsel in New York City, in the absence of extraordinary circumstances, are limited to a
maximum of 6% of the gross value of an estate, with decreasing percentages for estates
larger than $750,000. Pre-2002 guidelines had provided a 6% maximum fee for all
estates regardless of size.
11. After hearing Mr. Alfasi' s reports, respondent asked his chief court
attorney, Mark Levy, to investigate the PA's office. Initially, in reviewing the trial
balance reports of estates, Mr. Levy ascertained that Mr. Lippman was comlningling 17 to
29 privately retained legal matters with PA estates - i.e., using the facilities of the PA's
office to service his private clients. Respondent directed Mr. Lippman to take his private
Inatters out of the system and Mr. Lippman agreed to do so.
12. In examining trial balance reports of estates with negative balances,
Mr. Levy found cases where the negative balances were caused by legal fees paid to Mr.
Lippman in advance of the accounting. Based on his review of the Inatters, Mr. Levy told
respondent that the 75/25 protocol had been violated "at least to the extent of$100,000."
Respondent questioned Mr. Lippman, who admitted that he had not followed
respondent's directions with regard to the timing of legal fees but told respondent, "I
6
didn't think you would mind." Respondent did not accept this explanation and believed
that Mr. Lippman knew that respondent would not approve his behavior. Respondent
considered Mr. Lippman's violation of the fee protocol to be "a betrayal of trust."
13. Consequently, respondent determined that he no longer wanted Mr.
Lippman to serve as chief counsel to the PA, and in late January 2006, he offered the
position to Mr. Levy. Mr. Levy assumed that position in Apri12006, and Mr. Lippman
remained as associate counsel. For a time, Mr. Lippman continued to be assigned new
cases, albeit in reduced numbers.
14. At respondent's request, Mr. Lippman prepared three lists of pending
estates: one showed estates in which he had been paid legal fees consistent with the
guideline amounts; one showed estates in which he had received less than the guideline
amounts; and one showed estates in which he had received excess legal fees - i.e., fees
larger than the amount provided by the guidelines. Mr. Lippman gave the lists to
respondent and Mr. Levy sometime before mid-Apri12006. Mr. Levy had questions
about the accuracy of the lists, but because of the backlog he inherited as counsel, he did
not have time to analyze the case files and independently compute the extent of what Mr.
Lippman owed. Mr. Lippman amended the lists within a month or so.
15. When respondent asked Mr. Lippman to explain the list of estates in
which the legal fees he had taken exceeded the guideline amounts, Mr. Lippman said that
in some estates his fees were based on the gross value of real estate without consideration
of the mortgage (respondent generally took a mortgage into account in awarding legal
7
fees); some cases involved real estate that had title problems or a sale that had not closed;
and some matters were large estates predating 2002 in which he believed he was entitled
to the 6% fee authorized by the earlier guidelines rather than the lower percentage
authorized by the 2002 guidelines.
16. In May 2006 respondent appointed John Raniolo as PA. At the same
time, respondent implemented a remedial system/repayment plan under which Mr.
Lippman would repay the excess legal fees he had received by transferring all fees that he
earned going forward to estates he had previously overcharged. The calculations of
overcharges and repaytnents during this period were made using the guideline amount of
60/0. Respondent instructed Mr. Raniolo that when Mr. Lippman gave him an accounting
for an estate in which he was entitled to a fee, Mr. Lippman would also tell him which
estate or estates the fee should be deposited into, pursuant to the lists Mr. Lippman had
prepared. Except for $6,000 that Mr. Lippman was allowed to keep in order to pay a
health insurance premium, all legal fees earned by Mr. Lippman from April 2006 until
April 2009, when he was fired, were transferred to estates to which he owed money.
17. In June 2006 Mr. Levy and Mr. Raniolo suggested to respondent that
Mr. Lippman's employment be terminated. Mr. Raniolo explained that he was having
trouble getting along with Mr. Lippman and had to redo a lot of his accounts, and Mr.
Levy suggested that the open cases could be completed without Mr. Lippman. In 2007 or
early 2008, Mr. Levy again raised the issue of discontinuing Mr. Lippman as counsel.
Respondent rejected the suggestions on the ground that as long as Mr. Lippman's work
8
was "satisfactory," he could continue to work to repay the money he owed to estates in
the PA's office. After that point, Mr. Lippman was not assigned any new cases.
18. As counsel, Mr. Levy operated on a crisis basis, giving priority to
individuals who clamored to have their cases addressed. As cases of fee overcharges not
on Mr. Lippman's lists came to their attention, respondent and Mr. Levy became aware
that Mr. Lippman "probably was more over extended than we thought."
19. At some point, concerned about the number of Mr. Lippman's cases
that remained open, respondent concluded that more help was needed. In the fall of 2008,
he asked John J. Reddy, Jr., who had been counsel to the PA in New York County for 23
years, to take that position in the Bronx. Before Mr. Reddy agreed to accept the position,
Mr. Levy advised him of the disarray in the PA's office and that there had been visits by
the DOl and FBI. Mr. Reddy asked for more information so that he could assess the
situation, and Mr. Levy gave him the three lists Mr. Lippman had prepared and 250 trial
balance reports of Mr. Lippman's open cases. Mr. Levy told Mr. Reddy that respondent's
goal was to make sure that by the end of respondent's term, no person or estate had been
prejudiced by Mr. Lippman's conduct.
20. After analyzing the records for several weeks with his staff, Mr.
Reddy found that the PA had paid Mr. Lippman "haphazardly," that fees were frequently
transferred in and out of estates and returned "when it was clear that money had to be
returned," and that in 60 cases Mr. Lippman had overcharged estates. Mr. Reddy also
ascertained that in numerous cases Mr. Lippman took legal fees before doing any legal
9
work, causing estates to incur negative balances, and that in 15 to 20% of the cases the
entire legal fee was paid before an accounting was filed. While it would be normal for
about 10% of open cases to have negative balances from such items as the payment of
taxes or the purchase of a death certificate, about 40% of the estates had negative
balances as a result of advance payments to Mr. Lippman. According to Mr. Reddy's
analysis, Mr. Lippman had received over $450,000 in legal fees in excess of the guideline
amounts, but, based on the guideline figure of 60/0 of the value of each estate's gross
assets, net fees totaling $149,000 could still be earned by those estates. None of these
calculations included interest.
21. Mr. Reddy began work as counsel to the PAin the spring of 2009,
and respondent gave him permission to fire or retain personnel. In April 2009 Mr. Reddy
fired Mr. Lippman. Mr. Rubin, the PA's accountant, was also terminated.
22. Mr. Reddy planned to finish the work on the estates Mr. Lippman
had overcharged and to look to Mr. Lippman for repayment. As he and his staff worked
on the estates, they found more open cases than they had anticipated. They also found
many inaccuracies and omissions in Mr. Lippman's files and ascertained that Mr.
Lippluan "almost regularly" had misstated his legal fees in the accountings. Mr. Reddy's
office prepared affidavits amending the accountings to reflect the correct amounts and the
dates legal fees were paid. In every case, the parties to the proceedings were notified of
the misrepresentations.
23. As of January 6, 2012, when Mr. Reddy testified at the hearing, all
10
but 19 of Mr. Lippman's cases had been closed. Mr. Reddy estimated that his office had
performed legal services with a value of $500,000 to $1,000,000 on cases for which Mr.
Lippman had been paid. In addition, Mr. Lippman still owed between $125,000 and
$150,000 to overcharged estates. None of these figures included interest.
24. In 2006 the FBI questioned respondent about the timing of the legal
fees paid to Mr. Lippman. Respondent told the FBI that Mr. Lippman had violated the
protocol by taking advance fees but that he did not think that Lippman had violated any
law.
25. In 2006, at the time respondent implemented the remedial
system/repayment plan, he knew that Mr. Lippman had been paid excessive fees as well
as unauthorized advance fees, that the advance fees and excessive fees were a large sum,
and that the number of overcharged estates was significant. Respondent was aware of the
following in 2006:
(a) FrOin his conversation with Deputy PA Alfasi, respondent knew that
Mr. Lippman was a problem in the PA's office.
. (b) Respondent knew from Mr. Alfasi that Mr. Lippman was being paid
legal fees in advance of accountings in violation of respondent's protocol, a court
directive.
(c) Respondent knew from Mr. Alfasi that, according to the PA's
accountant, there were negative balances in estates totaling $300,000 to $400,000 caused
by advance legal fees paid to Mr. Lippman.
11
(d) Respondent knew from his chief court attorney Mark Levy that Mr.
Lipplnan had commingled his retained matters with the PA's estates.
(e) Mr. Levy's investigations, reported to respondent in early 2006,
showed an estimated $100,000 in unauthorized advance fees.
(f) When respondent confronted Mr. Lippman with accusations of
unauthorized legal fees, Mr. Lippman gave respondent an explanation which respondent
did not believe, i.e., Mr. Lippman said he thought that respondent would not mind his
violation of the 75/25 protocol. Thus, he knew that Mr. Lippman had lied to him, and he
felt his trust had been betrayed.
(g) From the lists Mr. Lippman had provided to respondent, respondent
knew that there were numerous estates in which the fee paid Mr. Lippman was in excess
of the Guideline amount.
(h) Respondent knew that law enforcement entities were investigating
payments of Mr. Lippman's legal fees.
(i) Respondent knew that Mr. Lipplnan liked to gamble and frequented
gambling establishments.
26. Notwithstanding that respondent had evidence in 2006 that there
was a substantial likelihood that Mr. Lippman had committed substantial violations of the
Code of Professional Responsibility, respondent failed to report Mr. Lippman to
disciplinary authorities. Based on the knowledge respondent had in 2006, the probability
and egregiousness of substantial misconduct by Mr. Lippman was so high that it seriously
12
called into question Mr. Lippman's honesty, trustworthiness and fitness to practice law.
Respondent had a duty to report Mr. Lippman to disciplinary authorities in order to
protect the estates in respondent's court from an attorney whose conduct put estates at
risk.
27. The information in respondent's possession in 2006 also strongly
pointed to larcenous conduct on the part of Mr. Lippman. Respondent was aware that law
enforcement entities were investigating the PA's office and had performed audits of the
office. He had a duty to share the information he had with law enforcement authorities.
28. Respondent did not share information with law enforcement entities.
Mr. Levy testified that he gave Mr. Lippman's lists to the DOl, the FBI and the Bronx
District Attorney's office.
29. The remedial system/repayment plan implemented by respondent in
2006 was not an appropriate response to Mr. Lippman's large scale taking of advance and
excess fees. By allowing a lawyer who had cheated the PA's office, overcharged estates,
lied to him and breached his trust to continue to represent the PAin the administration of
estates, respondent put at further risk the estates under his care.
30. Respondent's mistake was compounded by the details of the system
he set up whereby he directed that Mr. Lippman would decide which overcharged estates
to repay and which cases were to be closed out on a "matching basis" - i.e., Mr.
Lippman's new fee would be matched to an amount that had been overcharged on a case
on the list. Although some overcharged estates were repaid, new cases of overcharged
13
estates were discovered, and progress in clearing the backlog was slow.
31. Respondent and Mr. Lippman had a long professional relationship.
When Mr. Lippman served as counsel to the PA, they worked closely together, and they
saw each other on social occasions. Mr. Lippman gave a party at his home to celebrate
respondent's re-election and attended the wedding of respondent's daughter.
32. The long and close professional relationship between respondent and
Mr. Lippman influenced respondent's decisions in 2006 not to report Mr. Lippman to
disciplinary and law enforcement authorities and not to fire Mr. Lippman but instead to
set up a repayment plan.
As to Charge III of the Formal Written Complaint:
33. The charge is not sustained and therefore is dismissed.
As to Charge IV of the Formal Written Complaint:
34. The charge is not sustained and therefore is dismissed.
Upon the foregoing findings of fact, the Commission concludes as a matter
of law that respondent violated Sections 100.1, 100.2(A), 100.3(B)(I) and 100.3(D)(2) of
the Rules Governing Judicial Conduct ("Rules") and should be disciplined for cause,
pursuant to Article 6, Section 22, subdivision a, of the New York State Constitution and
~
Section 44, subdivision 1, of the Judiciary Law. Charge II is sustained insofar as it is
consistent with the above findings and conclusions, and respondent's misconduct is
14
established. Charges I, III and IV are not sustained and therefore are dismissed.
3
Under well-established ethical guidelines, a judge "who receives
information indicating a substantial likelihood that a lawyer has committed a substantial
violation of the Code of Professional Responsibility shall take appropriate action" (Rules,
§100.3[D][2]). As the Referee found, with the knowledge respondent had in 2006 that
Michael Lippman, his appointee as counsel to the public administrator, had committed
acts t h a ~ "strongly pointed to larcenous conduct" and had "overcharged estates, cheated
the PA's office, lied to him and breached his trust" (Rep. 42, 44), the appropriate action
for respondent, under Rule 100.3(D)(2), was to fire Mr. Lippman and report him to
3 In view of the dissenter's comments as to Charge I, it seems appropriate to comment on the
dismissal of the charge. While we share the Referee's concerns that Mr. Lippman's affirmations
of legal services provide insufficient detail as to the services rendered in each case, we cannot
conclude, in the circumstances presented, that approving legal fees based on such affirmations
constitutes judicial misconduct. We note that all of Mr. Lippman's fee requests were supported
by affirmations of legal services, in sharp contrast to the facts established in Matter ofFeinberg,
5 NY3d 206 (2005), involving a surrogate who awarded excessive legal fees to his long-time
close friend in the absence of affidavits. Mr. Lippman's affirmations, though largely consisting of
"boilerplate" description of customary procedures, contain some case specific information,
including a statement of estate assets and the hours he claimed to have worked. The record before
us indicates that other New York City surrogates during this period accepted affidavits that were
"similar in essence" or contained "even less detail" (Rep. 26, 18). To a significant extent, as the
Referee concluded, the Administrative Board Guidelines give shelter to the use of such affidavits
concomitant with the entrenched practice of awarding legal fees as a uniform percentage of estate
assets. A "rule of thumb" fee (which takes into account the costs of administering smaller, less
profitable estates), applied uniformly, effectively diminishes the importance of knowing the
details of the work done in a particular case. Nevertheless, we believe that the statutory
requirement of affidavits "setting forth in detail the services rendered" (SCPA §1108[2] [c])
necessarily means that meaningful, specific information should be provided, rather than a
generalized description of customary practices. In this regard, we note that the revised
Guidelines, effective May 2012, require counsel to maintain contemporaneous time records,
which "shall be provided upon request to any party to the proceeding," a requirement that should
encourage appropriate documentation and reporting of the legal services performed.
15
disciplinary and law enforcement authorities. Instead, respondent failed to report Mr.
Lippman's misconduct and permitted him to remain in a position of public trust for three
years under an ill-conceived plan to repay the unauthorized monies he had collected,
thereby putting the estates under his care at further risk and conveying the appearance of
favoritism. Respondent's abdication of his ethical responsibilities, which was influenced
by his long and close professional relationship with Mr. Lippman, constitutes serious
misconduct.
As the Referee concluded in her cogent, comprehensive report, in 2006
respondent had evidence that Mr. Lippman had engaged in gross misconduct in several
respects, triggering a duty to take appropriate disciplinary action (Rep. 36-43). From the
lists Mr. Lippman himself had prepared, respondent knew that Mr. Lipplnan had taken
legal fees in numerous estates that exceeded the amounts that would ultimately be
permitted under Administrative Board Guidelines. Significantly, notwithstanding that
Mr. Lippman had offered generalized, plausible explanations for the excess fees,
respondent had ample information that should have made him skeptical of the information
Mr. Lippman provided. Indeed, respondent has acknowledged that at that point he no
longer had confidence in Mr. Lippman, knew that Mr. Lippman had lied to him, and
viewed his actions as "a betrayal of trust." Respondent also knew, from infonnation
provided to him by his chief court attorney and by the deputy PA, that Mr. Lippman had
frequently taken advance fees from estates at a time when he was not entitled to do so,
resulting in substantial negative balances in the affected estates. Such advance fees
16
violated respondent's longstanding policy that no legal fees could be paid prior to the
accounting, that 750/0 of the fee could be paid at the accounting, and the remainder would
be paid upon the decree. This was also gross misconduct by Mr. Lippman, even when the
fees might ultimately be within the guideline recommendations, since it not only violated
the court's specific directive but eliminated any incentive for the attorney to complete the
legal work in a timely manner and put the affected estates at risk.
While the full extent of Mr. Lippman's malfeasance did not become evident
until several years later, the record clearly supports the Referee's conclusion that in 2006
"respondent had evidence that there was a substantial likelihood that Mr. Lippman had
committed substantial violations of the Code of Professional Responsibility" (Rep. 81).
(See, under the Disciplinary Rules in effect in 2006, DR 2-106[A] [prohibiting an
attorney from charging an excessive fee] and DR 7-106[A] [prohibiting an attorney from
"disregard[ing] ... a standing rule of a tribunal or a ruling of a tribunal"].)
While it is generally within a judge's discretion, after assessing all the
relevant, known circumstances, to determine what "appropriate action" is required by
Rule 100.3(D)(2), the Advisory Committee on Judicial Ethics has held that a judge must
report a lawyer's alleged misconduct to a disciplinary authority when "the alleged
substantial misconduct rose to such an egregious level that it seriously called into
question the attorney's honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer" (Adv Op 10-85;
see also Op 07-129). The purpose of the reporting requirement "is not to punish attorneys
for the slightest deviation from perfection, but to protect the public from attorneys who
17
are unfit to practice law" (Adv Op 10-85, as amended 12/9/11). We agree with the
Referee that under the circumstances presented, "the probability and egregiousness of
substantial misconduct by Mr. Lippman was so high that it seriously called into question
Mr. Lippman's honesty, trustworthiness and fitness to practice law" and thus, in order to
protect the estates in his court, respondent had a duty to terminate Mr. Lippman's
employment and report him to the disciplinary committee (Rep. 42).
As a judge, respondent also had an obligation to be forthcoming and
cooperative with law enforcement entities. Every judge is obliged to act at all times in a
manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary (Rules,
§100.2[A]). In 2006 respondent knew that the FBI was investigating the PA's office;
indeed, the FBI had specifically questioned him about the timing of the payment of Mr.
Lippman's legal fees. Respondent was also aware that other law enforcement entities had
been investigating the PA's office and had conducted numerous audits. With the
information he had that implicated Mr. Lipptnan's honesty and integrity, respondent had a
duty to share the information he had with law enforcement entities, consistent with the
ethical requiretnent that he take "appropriate action" under the circumstances presented.
Respondent's failure to do so was inconsistent with his ethical responsibilities and,
moreover, created an appearance that he was attempting to conceal the malfeasance in the
PA's office in order to protect his longtime colleague, and himself, from the
consequences of exposure.
Respondent's various explanations for his failure to share information with
18
law enforcement are unconvincing. Even if, as he maintains, he sincerely believed that
Mr. Lippman's conduct, insofar as he was aware at the time, was not contrary to law and
also believed that law enforcement entities probably had more information than he did,
that would not excuse respondent's failure to share information in his possession that
strongly hinted at serious wrongdoing (i.e., Mr. Lippman's adtnission that he had taken
excessive fees in substantial amounts from numerous estates). Nor are we persuaded by
respondent's explanation that he did not contact other agencies so as not to interfere with
ongoing investigations and to avoid the appearance that he was misusing his judicial
prestige in order to obtain information. Respondent should have recognized that his
failure to act not only was a dereliction of his ethical responsibilities, but conveyed the
appearance of impropriety and favoritism.
Despite having evidence in 2006 casting doubt on Mr. Lippman's integrity
and fitness to practice law, respondent permitted him to remain as associate counsel
representing estates for three more years, under an unorthodox repayment plan in which
Lippman continued to earn fees that were used to tnake refunds to overcharged estates.
Indeed, for three years Mr. Lippman himself was entrusted with the sole responsibility
for designating which estates should receive the repayments, and,though the lists he had
prepared supposedly showed all the estates that required reimbursement, additional cases
in which he owed money were continually being discovered. The beneficiaries of the
depleted, at-risk estates were never informed that Mr. Lippman had effectively
"borrowed" substantial, interest-free sums from the estates by taking unauthorized
19
advance payments. Moreover, for at least a year after he had notice of Mr. Lippman's
misconduct, respondent continued to assign him new cases in the PA's office, generating
new fees which were used in the repaytnent process; yet even after three years, when Mr.
Lipptnan's employment was finally tenninated, he still owed substantial sums to estates
he had overcharged.
4
Throughout this period, respondent resisted several suggestions that
Mr. Lippman be fired, insisting that the attorney could continue to work to repay the
monies he owed as long as his performance was "satisfactory." Respondent's notably
lenient treatment of Mr. Lippman, which permitted him to continue to work in a position
of public trust in order to repay the monies he owed, conveyed the appearance that
respondent was motivated by favoritism arising out of their long professional relationship.
It is no defense that the information disclosing the full extent of Mr.
Lippman's malfeasance was not developed until several years later, after Mr. Reddy and
his firm were brought in and conducted an exhaustive examination of the records.
Surrogates have enormous discretion and responsibility, but with that authority comes the
responsibility to act. With the knowledge he had in 2006, respondent had a duty to
ascertain the actual damage as expeditiously as possible and to take appropriate action to
alert disciplinary authorities and law enforcement officials of the situation. This is
particularly so since respondent's chief court attorney, who replaced Lippman as chief
counsel, readily admitted that he had questions about the accuracy of Mr. Lippman's
4 As of January 2012, according to Mr. Reddy, Mr. Lippman still owed between $125,000 and
$150,000 to overcharged estates.
20
lists but did not have the time to verify the calculations.
In sum, we believe that respondent's response to Mr. Lippman's
wrongdoing was plainly inadequate and inconsistent with his ethical responsibilities and,
thus, warrants public discipline.
While we recognize the issues presented by the surrogate's involvement in
the internal operations of the PA office under the present system (insofar as the public
administrator is a party appearing before the surrogate in the matters at issue), we note
that respondent's conduct in hiring Mr. Reddy in 2009 - three years after he first had
notice of the significant problems involving Mr. Lippman's conduct - finally set in
Illotion a process to determine the full scope of the damage caused by Lippman and to
ensure that the overcharged estates were made whole and that appropriate procedures
were followed. That was an important but insufficient step, as the proper functioning of
that important office should not depend on the integrity of one individual. We also note
that the facts presented in this record may indicate the need for consideration of
appropriate measures to regulate the conduct of PA counsel and clarify the responsibility
for the oversight and operations of the PA office, which has been described as "a
municipal agency whose relationship to the City is akin to that of a neglected stepchild"
(Matter ofAlayon, 28 Misc3d 311, 320 [Surr Ct Kings Co 2010], aff'd 86 AD3d 644 [2d
Dept 2011D.
In determining that the sanction of censure, rather than removal, is
appropriate, we find support in the interplay of several factors. First and foremost, we are
21
persuaded by the record before us that respondenCs repayment plan, while misguided and
ill-conceived, was motivated by a sincere desire to ensure that the estates under his care
were made whole by the individual who had already been paid and who was perhaps in
the best position to complete the work expeditiously. Thus, contrary to the dissent, we are
unable to find by a preponderance of the evidence that respondent intentionally put estates
at risk in order to "cover up...the criminal acts of his appointee" and to advance his own
interests (Emery Dissent, p. 1). For example, we note the testimony of court staff about
respondent's ongoing concern to make sure that by the end ofrespondenCs term, "no
person or estate had been in any way prejudiced" by Mr. Lippman's conduct (Tr. 1102),
and respondenCs affirmative actions in demoting Mr. Lippman, appointing his chief court
attorney to assess the damage and ultimately to replace Mr. Lippman as counsel, and,
finally, bringing in Mr. Reddy to remedy the situation when previous remedial measures
proved too slow and ineffective. We find that respondent's wrongdoing reflects poor
judgment, rather than knowing concealment of criminal behavior or intent to deceive.
Regrettably, in the decision to retain Mr. Lippman as counsel, respondent's
judgment was clouded by his long professional association with an attorney who had
served as counsel for several decades and whom he regarded as competent, prompting
respondent too readily to accord him the benefit of a doubt. (See, Matter ofEdwards, 67
NY2d 153, 155 [1986].) However, respondenCs conduct stands in sharp contrast to that
in Matter ofFeinberg, in which the judge appointed as counsel his long-time close
personal friend, who had limited experience in Surrogate's Court, and routinely awarded
22
him excess fees without requiring affidavits and without reviewing the court files, thereby
showing "a shocking disregard for the very law that imbued him with judicial authority,"
"an unacceptable incoinpetence in the law," and "indifference if not cynicism toward his
judicial office" (supra,S NY3d at 214,215, 216).
We also note, with respect to respondent's cooperation with law
enforcement entities, respondent's testimony that he instructed the PA's office to
cooperate in providing information, and the testimony of his chief court attorney that he
gave the Lippman lists of overcharged estates to the FBI, DOl and the district attorney's
office. Finally, we are mindful of respondent's lengthy and unblemished tenure as a
judge and his ilnpending departure froin the bench at the end of this year, upon reaching
the mandatory retirement age.
As the Court of Appeals has stated, "[r]emoval is an extreme sanction and
should be imposed only in the event of truly egregious circumstances" (Matter of
Cunningham, 57 NY2d 270,275 [1982], citing Matter ofSteinberg, 51 NY2d 74, 83
[1980]). "[R]emoval should not be ordered for conduct that ainounts simply to poor
judgment, or even extremely poor judgluent" (Matter ofShilling, 51 NY2d 397, 403
[1980], citing Matter ofSteinberg, supra, at p 81) (Id.). After a careful review of the
entire record, we thus conclude that censure is the appropriate sanction.
By reason of the foregoing, the Commission determines that the appropriate
disposition is censure.
Judge Ruderman, Judge Acosta, Mr. Belluck, Mr. Cohen, Mr. Harding,
23
Judge Peters and Mr. Stoloff concur.
Judge Klonick and Ms. Moore dissent as to Charge I and vote to sustain the
charge, and dissent as to the sanction and vote that respondent be relnoved froln office.
Ms. Moore files an opinion, which Judge Klonick joins.
Mr. Emery dissents as to the sanction and votes that respondent be removed
from office. Mr. Emery files an opinion.
Judge Weinstein did not participate in the matter.
CERTIFICATION
It is certified that the foregoing is the determination of the State
Commission on Judicial Conduct.
Dated: December 13,2012
24
~ M . ~
Jean M. Savanyu, Esq.
Clerk of the Commission
New York State
Comlnission on Judicial Conduct
STATE OF NEW YORK
COMMISSION ON JUDICIAL CONDUCT
In the Matter of the Proceeding
Pursuant to Section 44, subdivision 4,
of the Judiciary Law in Relation to
LEE L. HOLZMAN,
JT'u'urlge o-l='+1..
Q
rAlll"t
"'" 0 1. Ul\.l -.J 1 V5CH,,\.I '-../VUl. l-,
Bronx County.
OPINION BY MS. MOORE,
WHICH JUDGE KLONICK
JOINS, DISSENTING AS
TO THE SANCTION AND
THE DISMISSAL OF
CHARGE I
While I concur with the majority's decision that respondent's grossly
inadequate response to his appointee's malfeasance warrants a severe sanction, I
respectfully dissent from the decision to dismiss Charge I, and from the determined
sanction of censure. Because respondent routinely failed to follow a plainly-worded state
law over the course of fourteen years and because he failed to take appropriate action
despite overwhelming evidence of his appointee's wrongdoing, I believe that removal
from office, the most severe sanction available to us under the constitutionally-created
disciplinary scheme, is warranted.
I. Respondent Failed To Comply with the Surrogate's Court Procedure Act
The gravamen of Charge I is that in hundreds of cases respondent awarded
legal fees to Michael Lippman, counsel to the Bronx Public Administrator, based on
"boilerplate" affirmations of legal services that did not contain detailed information as to
the actual services rendered to estates and, thus, did not comply with Surrogate's Court
Procedure Act ("SCPA") §1108(2)(c). That respondent failed to conduct the review
mandated by SCPA §1108(2)(c) is established unequivocally by the evidentiary record
before us.
SCPA §1108(2)(c) requires that:
"Any legal fees allowed by the court [to counsel to Public
Administrators within the City of New York] shall be
supported by an affidavit of legal services settingforth in
detail the services rendered, the time spent, and the method
or basis by which requested compensation was determined. In
fixing counsel fees, the court shall consider the time and labor
required, the difficulty ofthe questions involved, the skill
required to handle the problems presented, the lawyer's
experience, ability and reputation, the amount involved and
benefit resulting to the estate froln the services, the customary
fee charged by the bar from similar services, the contingency
or certainty of compensation, the results obtained, and the
responsibility involved." (Elnphasis added.)
The Referee found, following extensive hearings and review of 177
exhibits totaling more than 14,000 pages:
"A preponderance ofthe evidence shows that in hundreds of
cases, between 1995 and April 2009, respondent approved
legal fees for Michael Lippman based on affirmations that did
not set forth in detail the services rendered as required by
statute." (Rep. 19)
Instead of adhering to the plainly-worded dictates of SCPA§1108(2)(c),
respondent routinely ignored those requirelnents and approved fees based on deficient
affidavits that did not enable him to consider the statutorily mandated factors. The
"boilerplate" affirmations he reviewed contain lnany paragraphs of non-estate specific
information and generalities about procedures which do, in fact, supply some of the
2
information required by the SCPA. The majority is satisfied that Mr. Lipplnan's
affirmations include a statement of estate assets and "the hours he claimed to have
worked" (Determination, p. 15, n. 3). Significantly, however, as the Referee found, "Mr.
Lippman's affirmations of legal services contain no details (elnphasis added) as to the
legal services perfonned" (Rep. 17). More precisely:
"They do not document what actual work was done in the
particular case. There is no indication of what legal issues
were involved, how complex they were, or what was done to
resolve them. There is no information showing how the hours
claimed were spent with regard to the specific estate." (Rep.
17-18)
Accordingly, the Referee concluded that the affirmations of legal services reviewed by
respondent did not give him all of the infonnation needed to make individualized fee
judgments for the estates he was charged with protecting.
Coupled with the Referee's cogent analysis and conclusion is, in essence,
respondent's own admission that in the years encompassed by the Formal Written
Complaint he awarded millions of dollars in legal fees to Mr. Lippman based on
affirmations that were in substantial part the same in every case (Tr. 2016).
Notwithstanding respondent's claim that COlnmission counsel "cherry-picked" the cases
cited in support of Charge I, he conceded that in fact all of Mr. Lippman's affirmations
were substantially similar. Respondent had routinized his approval of legal fees to Mr.
Lippman to the point that the affirmations in the 30 cases set forth in Schedule A of the
Formal Written Complaint are so strikingly similar that they contain the same
typographical errors (see Rep. 14, n. 7).
3
Unsurprisingly, then, when asked at the hearing about the extent and nature
of the legal work done in the Diane Glasco case, respondent could not describe with any
specificity how Mr. Lippman had spent the 56 hours he claimed to have worked; nor
could he offer any specifics as to the 400 hours of legal work allegedly done in the Estate
ofHelen Marks, other than that the case involved a complicated kinship issue (Tr. 2343).
Yet, respondent awarded Mr. Lippman more than $100,000 in legal fees in the Marks
case (Rep. 21).
It bears emphasizing that respondent was thoroughly familiar with the
SCPA and the statutory requirements. According to the Referee's report, respondent
testified with a copy of the SCPA at his side and "alluded many tilnes to sections of the
statute from metnory" (Rep. 20). There is no doubt whatsoever that respondent was fully
aware of the requirements at issue here. It should be noted also that no one has argued
that the statutory requirement is either onerous or unreasonable. Clearly, it is not. While
there is no impropriety in using a template with some boilerplate language as the starting
point for an affidavit, surely it would require no great effort for a lawyer to include a few
sentences or paragraphs describing the specific work that was done in a particular case -
especially when such an affidavit is the basis for a fee request of many thousands of
dollars. Certainly the judge approving the request should demand more specificity and
detail.
Systetnatic approval of deficient affidavits thwarts the important purpose
for which the statutory requirements of SCPA §1108(2)(c) were established. As the
Court of Appeals stated in Matter ofFeinberg, 5 NY3d 206,214 (2005), the purpose of
4
the requirements is to ensure that beneficiaries of estates "are paying only for the actual
cost of administering the estates." The legislative history and background of SCPA
§1108(2)(c) detailed in Feinberg underscored the need to assure that legal fees are
commensurate with the services provided. See, Matter ofAlayan, 28 Misc3d 311, 318
(Surr Ct Kings Co 2010) ("[I]f legal fees are not fixed based on the actual work
perfonned, there is no question that an injustice results, as the subject estates have been
diminished without regard to the benefits conferred upon them by [counsel's] legal
services"), afJ'd, 86 AD3d 644 (2d Dept 2011). Boilerplate affidavits necessarily
disguise any differences between the services provided in a relatively simple case and
one with complex issues. By describing in general terms both the services provided in
every case and those that would have been provided if needed, the template affidavits
obscure the actual work that was done in a particular case. As such, they not only fail to
achieve, but actually undermine the objectives of SCPA §1108(2)(c).
II. The Administrative Board Guidelines Call for Compliance with SCPA §1108(2)(c)
Just as the Surrogate's Court Procedure Act imposed on respondent the
duty to give individualized consideration to the statutory factors before setting counsel
fees, so too do the Administrative Board Guidelines authorized by SCPA §1128 to
structure compensation of counsel to public administrators. The Guidelines do so
explicitly. Thus, I find unpersuasive the Referee's conclusion, which the tnajority
accepts, that misconduct should not be found because the Guidelines effectively
"enable[ ] legal fees to be awarded without relationship to legal work done" in that they
5
instruct compliance with the SCPA but also recommend a "rule of thumb" legal fee of
6% of estate assets (Rep. 24).
The establishlnent by the Administrative Board for the Offices of the Public
Adlninistrators of Inonetary parameters within which surrogates are to set legal fees did
not eliminate the requirelnent that surrogates consider the factors prescribed in SCPA
§1108(2)(c) when setting fees. The Guidelines state that 6% is the maximum fee that
should be requested, not that that amount must be awarded in every case, with no
showing of the work that was actually done. Indeed the majority's own opinion straddles
the fence with respect to the requirements imposed on surrogates. It asserts, on the one
hand, that the Guidelines diminish the importance of knowing the details of the work
done in a particular case yet concedes, on the other hand, that the statutory requirement of
affidavits "setting forth in detail the services rendered" demands "meaningful, specific
information" (Determination, p. 15, n. 3). The practical difference between "details" and
"specificity" in this context is a difference without a distinction. What is in fact
meaningfully specific is the ten-point list of statutory factors carefully delineated in
SCPA §1108(2)(c) that are required to be considered in awarding fees. Critically,
moreover, the Referee's report itself concedes that the 2002 Amended Guidelines
explicitly direct public administrators in New York to "require counsel to support their
request for compensation with an affidavit complying with SCPA §1108(2)(c)" (Emphasis
added) (Rep. 63). The Referee further observed that the Interim Report accolnpanying
the 2002 Guidelines underscores that "the Surrogate retains complete discretion to fix
reasonable counsel fees in accordance with the factors listed in SCPA §1108(2)(c)"
6
(Emphasis added) (Rep. 63). In view of the fact that the Referee herself acknowledges
that the Guidelines expressly call for compliance with SCPA §1108(2)(c), it is odd the
majority nonetheless accepts the rationale that the Guidelines somehow excuse
respondent's failure to comply with SCPA §1108(2)(c).
It is interesting to note that respondent played a central role in devising the
very Guidelines by which the majority now intitnates he is sheltered from accountability.
Respondent was Chair of the Administrative Board for the Offices of the Public
Administrators that enacted the 2002 Guidelines and was a member of the Board that
enacted the May 2012 Guidelines (Rep. 23-24, n.11). As such, the majority's decision
effectively permits respondent to take cover under the so-called "internal inconsistency"
he himself played a role in authoring.
Finally, even if there were sufficient grounds upon which to conclude that
the Administrative Guidelines are faulty, it should go without saying that a state law is
superior to any administrative guidelines promulgated in furtherance of the law. The
Administrative Board for the Offices of the Public Adlninistrators owes its existence and
its authority to Surrogate's Court Procedure Act §1128. It cannot, therefore, supersede its
institutional capacity and eviscerate core provisions of the very Act it is charged to help
execute. The Guidelines do not, nor can they "give shelter" to respondent's failure to
comply with SCPA §1108(2)(c).
III. The "Everybody Does It" Defense Lacks Supporting Evidence
Equally unpersuasive is the notion that respondent's transgression should
7
be excused by the fact that, during this time period, other New York City surrogates also
accepted similarly deficient affidavits (Rep. 18). The majority's implicit endorsement of
respondent's defense that, in essence, "everybody does it" lacks a viable evidentiary base.
More precisely, the record before us is insufficient to demonstrate an entrenched pattern
of non-compliance with SCPA §1108(2)(c) in the years at issue. No testimony was
elicited at the hearing with respect to the format of affidavits generally accepted by
surrogates of New York, Queens, and Kings counties. Nor was there testimony regarding
the circumstances under which the fees were approved in the out-of-county cases that
were introduced into evidence by respondent. And, although some of those out-of-county
affidavits contained an offer to submit additional details upon request, there was no
testitnony as to whether additional details were in fact requested and received by
surrogates in the other counties.
Juxtaposed to the 30 affirmations introduced as proof of respondent's
practice in Bronx County alone during 1995 to April 2009 along with the extensive
testimony surrounding those affirmations, only 14 affidavits of legal services from
attorneys who served as counsel to the Public Administrator in other counties constitute
enough proof for the majority of a so-called widespread, longstanding practice.
1
The
surrogates in other counties were not given an opportunity to explain whether the
affidavits the respondent chose to present as evidence were representative of the
affidavits they required in their courts. Moreover, it is important to highlight that eleven
1 See the affidavits in evidence from New York County, Kings County and Queens County (Ex.
Q, R, S, T, V, W, EE, FF, GG, HH, II, JJ, KK). At least one (Ex. U) was deemed by the Referee
an exception.
8
of the 14 out-of-county affidavits offered by respondent were submitted before the 2005
Feinberg decision that underscored the requirement of affidavits of legal services. That
leaves a grand total of three pertinent deficient affidavits in evidence submitted in other
counties of New York City post-Feinberg. Only in a make-believe world does N = 3
constitute a representative subset of the thousands of affidavits approved by New York
City surrogates in the years following the 2005 Feinberg ruling. Neither does the larger
N = 14 satisfy a common sense, let alone a legal threshold for what constitutes proof of a
widespread pattern in the context of tens of thousands of affidavits approved in New
York City counties in the nearly 20 years since enactment of SPCA §1108(2)(c) in 1993.
Even assuming the roughly three to 14 out-of-county affidavits presented
by the respondent are more than a cherry-picked, biased sample of surrogate decision-
making in New York City, such evidence would not excuse respondent's misconduct. In
Matter ofSardina, 58 NY2d 286,291 (1983), the Court of Appeals explained that similar
misconduct of other judges does not provide a defense to a finding ofjudicial
misconduct:
"Each Judge is personally obligated to act in accordance
with the law and the standards ofjudicial conduct. If a Judge
disregards or fails to meet these obligations the fact that
others may be similarly derelict can provide no defense.
Indeed one of the obvious reasons for establishing a
permanent Commission on Judicial Conduct is to elevate
judicial performance by insuring that the practices in the
various courts cOlnply with the high standards required of
judicial officers."
This principle was reaffirmed in Matter afDuckman, 92 NY2d 141, 154 (1998) and again
in Matter ofFeinberg, 5 NY3d 206, 215 (n. 4) (2005). It is time to change the practice if
9
it is a practice.
IV. Proper COlumission Response to Widespread Pattern of Problematic Judicial
Behavior
Our response should not be to turn a blind eye to conduct that is clearly
contrary to the law, nor to excuse judges who fail to follow the law. The proper
COlumission response to a bonafide widespread pattern of problematic judicial behavior
is to confront, rather than excuse the behavior. Past instances of widespread lapses in
judgment by judges prompted the Commission to do more than look the other way. In
March 2012 the Commission issued a public report and recommended a set of reforms in
response to complaints brought against the Presiding Justice of the Appellate Division,
First Department, alleging that the judge engaged in inappropriate hiring practices. No
state laws were proven to have been violated following extensive investigation of the
complaints in that case, unlike in the instant case. The system-wide hiring-related
reforms recommended by the Commission were subsequently adopted.
In 1977 the Commission issued a public report in addition to, not in lieu of,
formal disciplinary charges against more than 200 judges found to have "fixed" traffic
tickets. The Commission opted to both sanction the judges involved as well as use a
public report as a mechanism for redressing the widespread problem of ticket-fixing. The
latter is the proper course of action were the Commission actually provided with concrete
evidence of a widespread pattern of disregarding SPCA §1108(2)(c) on the part of New
York City surrogates.
Today's decision is instead grounded in the hope that the revised May 2012
10
Guidelines will somehow induce compliance on the part of respondent and others
similarly situated, where extant mandates obviously failed to do so. It is important to
note that the majority asserts the new requirement that counsel maintain
contemporaneous time records "should encourage" appropriate documentation and
reporting of the legal services perfonned (Detennination, p. 15, n. 3; emphasis added). It
is my view that SCPA §1108(2)(c), the previously existing Guidelines, and Feinberg also
should have encouraged appropriate doculnentation. They did not, because respondent
chose to ignore them, even though he should have complied with them.
The negative repercussions that potentially flow from the majority's
decision to not sanction respondent for systematically failing to abide by a state law are
many. First and foremost, the determination potentially undermines public trust in the
judiciary and legal process. There is reasonable cause for concern whenever a judge rests
his or her non-compliance with a state law on a claim that other judges are equally non-
compliant. This is especially so when that judge's credentials include more than forty
years of experience as an attorney and nearly 25 years of service on the bench. Rarely
can the typical respondent or defendant in a legal proceeding expect a court of law to
accept the "everybody does it" defense as exculpatory. The public will likely find little
solace in knowing that the Commission on Judicial Conduct has given a New York State
judge a special pass to ignore a state law that is directed squarely at his office.
The majority's decision also gives a blank check to counsels to the Public
Administrators. It is in all likelihood a big blank check. In general, the upper limits of
the Public Administrators' counsels' fees are considerable. During the years
11
encompassed by the instant complaint, the Bronx Public Administrator's office at any
one time handled between $30 million and $57 million in estate funds. Between 2001
and 2005 alone, Mr. Lippman's annual earnings from Public Administrator legal fees
ranged from $768,500 to $1,496,140 (Ex. 93). (In Matter ofFeinberg, as much as $9.5
million in legal fees from estate funds, over a period of five and a half years, were at
stake.) Indicted in July 2010 in Bronx County of scheme to defraud, offering a false
instrument for filing, falsifying business records, grand larceny and conflict of interest,
Mr. Lippman profited enormously, in part, from respondenfs failure to perform his
judicial duties. Moreover, the Referee found that, as of the January 6, 2012 hearing date,
a total of 19 Lippman cases remained open and Mr. Lipplnan still owed between
$125,000 and $150,000 to overcharged estates, not including interest. In addition, Mr.
Reddy's office had performed legal services with an estimated value of $500,000 to
$1,000,000 on cases for which Mr. Lippman had been paid.
Where the Court of Appeals decision in Matter ofFeinberg affirms the
requirelnents ofSCPA §1108(2)(c) and, thus, provides clarity, the majority's decision in
this case stands to impart confusion. Although the question of the sufficiency of the
affidavits of legal services was not before the Court in Feinberg, the holding nonetheless
underscored the purpose and practical necessity of the statutory requirements that
respondent failed to meet. The financial interests of the family Inembers and other
survivors of intestate decedents are potentially jeopardized by the majority's decision not
to insist that surrogates comply with the statutory requirements designed to protect those
interests. That these individuals consist of vulnerable segments - namely, "beneficiaries
12
of estates that, by definition, lack interested parties capable of offering independent
review" - makes the majority's weakening of the force of those requirements all the more
troubling (Rep. 62).
ltnplicit in the majority's decision is an expectation that the state legislature
may ultimately accept the virtually impossible mission of writing a law that is even
clearer than the Surrogate's Court Procedure Act, or that the Administrative Board will
explain why its directive to comply with SCPA §1108(2)(c) is not inconsistent with the
Guidelines imposed.
2
Absent either of these outcomes, we can reasonably expect, at
best, confusion as to the precise requirements imposed on surrogates and, at worst,
actualization of the widespread pattern the maj ority now theorizes to exist.
v. Commission Enforcement of the Rules of Judicial Conduct
Instead of turning a blind eye and passing the buck, the Commission should
instead fulfill its duty to enforce the existing Rules Governing Judicial Conduct in this
case. The buck should stop here. The New York State Constitution authorizes the
Commission to "detennine that a judge or justice be admonished, censured or removed
from office for cause, including, but not limited to, misconduct in office" (Art 6, §22[a]).
Section 100.2 of the Rules of the Chief Administrator of the Courts Governing Judicial
Conduct requires a judge to "respect and comply with the law" and "act at all times in a
manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary."
By definition, failure to follow a state law constitutes judicial misconduct. The
2 The Referee opined that the so-called disconnect between the Administrative Guidelines and
its authorizing statute "might be addressed by the Legislature" (Rep. 25).
13
majority's own opinion acknowledges that the responsibility for the estates in question
was ultimately rested in respondent's hands insofar as it notes, one, that respondent "had
a duty to report Mr. Lippman to disciplinary authorities in order to protect the estates in
respondent's court . .. " and, two, that by failing to do so respondent "put at further risk
the estates under his care ..." (Determination, p. 13; emphasis added). The statutorily
required oversight on respondent's part was Inade all the more necessary in this case
because he was well aware Mr. Lippman "liked to gamble and frequented gambling
establishments" (Determination, p. 12). In my view, respondent effectively abdicated his
duties under state law not at the point at which he failed to report Mr. Lippman after the
fact, but at the point at which he failed to maintain the watchful eye envisaged by SCPA
§1108(2)(c) before the fact.
By dismissing Charge I of the Formal Written Complaint, the majority
effectively holds that even though Section 100.2 of the Rules requires respondent to
comply with the statutory requirements of SCPA §1108(2)(c), and even though
respondent systematically failed to abide by those requirements, he did not violate the
Rules Governing Judicial Conduct. I respectfully disagree, and vote to sustain Charge I.
VI. The Sanction of Removal Is Appropriate
While I cannot agree with some of the characterizations contained in Mr.
Emery's dissent, I share his view that based on the record before us, the sanction of
censure is unduly lenient. Although "the ultimate sanction of removal is not normally to
be imposed for poor judgment, even extremely poor judgment" (Matter ofShilling, 51
14
NY2d 397,403 [1980]), respondent's demonstrated dereliction of his ethical
responsibilities, both in his systetnatic disregard of an important statutory mandate and in
his unacceptable response to his appointee's malfeasance, compels the conclusion that he
is unfit for judicial office.
Dated: Decetnber 13, 2012
'if
Nina M. Moore, Member
New York State
Commission on Judicial Conduct
15
STATE OF NEW YORK
COMMISSION ON JUDICIAL CONDUCT
In the Matter of the Proceeding
Pursuant to Section subdivision
of the Judiciary Law in Relation to
LEE L.
a Judge of the
Bronx County.
OPINION BY MR. EMERY
DISSENTING AS TO
THE SANCTION
It is hard to disagree with any aspect of the decision except its
obtuse attempt to justify the sanction of censure as a response to this dissent. This is
clearly a removal case. The notion that the majority can say what it does about Surrogate
Holzlnan s misconduct and then censure hitn defies precedent and common sense.
Removal is the only sanction which is commensurate with respondent's
self-aggrandizing Inisconduct. And that is because it is clear that
three-year cover-up of the criminal acts of his appointee and long-time colleague was
actually an attempt to protect himself from scandal and cover up his own misconduct.
as we have come to in many walks of life are often more
egregious than the substantive offenses being concealed. But for a judge to protect
himself by covering for an appointee he supervised is a particularly grievous assault on
the majesty of the judiciary. It is in my to corruption.
In this case, respondent's misconduct was worse than a simple cover-up. It
was compounded by his bizarre scheme to have Lipplnan handle estate funds after 2006,
when it was discovered that he had systematically taken fees that he had not earned. By
constructing this schelne that allowed Lippman to continue earning fees for years -
ostensibly to pay back what he had stolen but really to avoid the scandal of thefts by his
appointee on his watch - respondent enabled a continuing fraud. It is as if the United
States attorney's office told Madoffwhen his Ponzi scheme was discovered, "Keep the
investments going so that what you make in the market can be returned to your victims."
Remember, even if Lipplnan had been fired in 2006, he would have been responsible for
repaying the monies he owed. Respondent has no excuse or justification for secretly
helping him repay those monies - especially by retaining him in a position of trust. In
effect, respondent was imposing on future estates a person whom he knew could not be
trusted. And he told no one other than his trusted insiders, even while he knew law
enforcement agencies were breathing down Lippman's proverbial neck.
Respondent knew that as long as he kept his secret scheme in-house, the
scandal in his court would not be revealed. He knew better than anyone that Lippman's
victims were virtually all intestate estates where the beneficiaries had no one to look to
for oversight other than the judge (respondent) who is the sole "disinterested" repository
of trust and accountability in the system of public administration. Instead of carrying out
his sworn duty, he hid the truth from the victims by not disclosing Lippman's dishonesty
and not reporting Lippman to the law enforcement agencies that were engaged in ongoing
active investigations, or to disciplinary authorities with oversight over attorney
2
malfeasance. As we all know, it is all too common for disciplinary committees to disbar
attorneys for misuse of client funds.
1
Knowingly enabling that conduct is no less
culpable.
As the trenchant Referee's report (to which both the majority and I
appropriately defer) explains, as of2006 when Lippman's thefts were first discovered:
"Mr. Levy's investigations, reported to respondent in early
2006, showed an estimated $100,000 in unauthorized advance
fees. When respondent confronted Mr. Lippman, Mr.
Lippman gave respondent an explanation which respondent
did not believe. He felt his trust had been betrayed...
Respondent knew that law enforcement authorities were
investigating payments of Mr. Lippman's legal fees ... and he
knew 'for a long period of time that Mr. Lippman liked to
gamble' and frequented gambling establishments."
(Rep. 39) (Citations omitted; emphasis added)
Respondent testified: "I certainly felt that what he did was a betrayal of
trust to me" (Tr. 2549; emphasis added). A "betrayal of trust to me" might seem a
somewhat displaced concern. What about the trust of the beneficiaries of the estates for
which respondent was responsible? Nowhere in his testimony is this concern expressed.
Any of his concerns for the victims were, apparently, subsumed by his concern for
himself. So the repayment scheme on which the majority determination so heavily relies
to mitigate respondent's misconduct seems not to have had the primary purpose of
helping the victims; rather, the evidence supports the conclusion that it was, as I have
1 In 2011, the Lawyers Fund for Public Protection determined that the dishonest conduct of 46
disbarred, suspended or deceased lawyers in New York State was responsible for documented
client losses totaling $9.9 million (2011 Annual Report of the Lawyers Fund for Public
Protection, pp. 14, 22).
3
concluded, animated by respondent's solipsism. As such, any mitigation on this basis is
indulging unsupported, post hoc spin of the facts and is plain error.
Respondent also learned that Lippman had commingled his personal law
practice funds with those of estates administered by the Public Administrator (Rep. 28).
Over the next three years, he learned that Lippman had under-reported both the alTIOunts
he owed and the number of estates he had overcharged. Nevertheless, respondent did not
report or fire Lippman, and he allowed Lippman to continue to represent estates and
collect fees. Notably, the Referee finds that respondent's motivation for this egregious
judicial misconduct was based, in significant part, on his long personal and professional
relationship with Lippman:
"Michael Lippman started work as counsel to the Bronx
County PA in 1970. In 1974, respondent came to work in the
Bronx County courthouse as Law Secretary to the then Bronx
County Surrogate and later was appointed head of the
Surrogate Court's Law Department where he served until he
beCalTIe Surrogate in 1988. During the years that the two men
worked in the same courthouse, they saw each other
frequently on court business. When respondent was elected
Surrogate, he retained Mr. Lippman as counsel to the PA.
During the ensuing years, respondent and Michael Lippman
had a close working relationship. In addition to appointing
Mr. Lippman as chief counsel to the PA, respondent
conferred with him about the staffing needs of the PA's office
and, in consultation with Mr. LipplTIan, selected the attorneys
who served as associate counsels ... Mark Levy, respondent's
Chief Court Attorney, testified that in January 2006, while
Mr. Levy was working in respondent's chambers, 'Mr.
Lippman came in and said to the Surrogate, "Do I still have a
job?'" This incident bespeaks Mr. Lippman's familiarity with
the Surrogate and his chambers.
4
On occasion, respondent and Michael Lippman saw each
other outside the courthouse as well. Respondent knew that
Mr. Lippman had season's tickets to Yankee Stadium, and
testified that 'over the years there were at least three or four
years that I went to Opening Day games with Mr. Lippman.'
Respondent could recall at least twice when the two men had
lunch together with other parties present. Mr. Lippman
attended the wedding of respondent's eldest daughter. Mr.
Lippman gave a party at his upstate home for more than 100
people to celebrate respondent's re-election. Mr. Lippman
also made telephone calls' for a couple of months' in an effort
to raise 111011ey for respondent's 2001 re-election.
When respondent learned that Esther Rodriguez [the Public
Administrator] had disobeyed his direction to stop using John
Rivera as a vendor, he summarily fired her. When respondent
learned that Michael Lippman had taken excess and advance
fees and had disobeyed a direction of the court, respondent
retained his services as associate counsel and permitted him
to represent estates for three more years, albeit Mr.
Lippman's fees were used to make refunds. The damage to
the estates from the pilfering of Mr. Rivera was miniscule
compared to the dalnage to the estates by Mr. Lippman as it
was known to respondent in 2006.
I conclude there was proof by a preponderance of the
evidence that the long and close relationship between
respondent and Michael Lippman influenced respondent's
decision in 2006 not to fire Michael Lippman and his decision
not to report Michael Lippman to the DDC and to law
enforcement, and instead to set up a repayment plan."
(Rep. 45-47) (Citations omitted.)
Perhaps most revealing of respondent's personal interest, the Referee
quoted Mark Levy, respondent's chief court attorney, as stating in 2008 that "the goal
'was to make sure that by the time the judge 's term was completed [December 31,2012]
that absolutely no person or estate had been in any way prejudiced by... [Mr. Lippman's]
conduct'" (Rep. 32-33 [emphasis added]). While the majority seems to view this goal as
5
entirely altruistic (i. e., respondent wanted to ensure that every estate was made whole and
no beneficiary was prejudiced), I think it is more to the point that respondent's goal was
self-serving: if respondent's plan was successful, he would leave office without anyone
ever knowing of Lippman's misdeeds, and the perfidy of respondent's role in enabling
them would not come to light.
The majority concludes, as did the Referee, that respondent's cover-up
"conveyed the appearance that respondent was motivated by favoritism arising out of
their long professional relationship" (Determination, p. 20). My view is that the record
shows that his motivation was both professional and personal. However, that conclusion
is not necessary to the result I advocate.
laIn unpersuaded by the rationale - which the majority seems to swallow
hook, line and sinker - that when respondent confronted Lippman over his admission that
he had overcharged nUlnerous estates, Lippman "offered generalized, plausible
explanations for the excess fees" (Determination, p. 16), such as that his fee estimates
had been based on faulty assessments of real estate. As the majority is constrained to
acknowledge, albeit in a substantial understatement, "respondent had ample information
that should have made him skeptical of [this] information" (Id.). Certainly the Referee
did not Inake any finding that his "explanations" were "plausible." Even if, at that point,
respondent did not know with 100% certainty that Lippman was a thief, he had more than
enough information to know beyond any doubt that Lippman was neither ethical nor
trustworthy. Moreover, by his own testimony, he felt "betrayed."
6
Nor am I persuaded by any argulnent that it took several years before the
magnitude of Lippman's misconduct was discovered. In fact, it is clear that between
2006 and 2009 the onion of Lippman's dishonesty unpeeled even in the face of his
attempts to minimize it. Respondent's claim that he was unaware of the extent of
Lippman's theft is not a defense because when the circumstances cried out for a
thorough, independent assessment of the damage, respondent ignored the cacophony of
warning bells and whistles. His only response was to demote Lippman as chief counsel
(while allowing him to keep working on cases and even assigning him new cases) and to
institute the repayment plan - a scheme that continued for three years, even as respondent
continued to learn new details of his appointee's unethical and, likely, criminal behavior.
On this record, respondent's offenses are removable taken separately, let
alone combined. They include:
1. Failure to fire an employee known to have engaged in mishandling court
monies. We have regularly disciplined town justices for this violation,
standing alone (Matter ofJarosz; Matter ofBurin), notwithstanding that
the alTIOunts at issue were nowhere near the six-figure totals in this case.
2. Failure to report serious attorney misconduct and evidence of criminal
activity that would likely result in disbarment and/or prosecution (see
Adv Ops 10-85 [requiring a judge to report a lawyer to a disciplinary
authority when the lawyer's alleged substantial misconduct "seriously
calls into question the attorney's honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a
lawyer"], 07-129 Oudge should report attorney, who admitted that
7
he/she committed perjury, to disciplinary authority]; 09-142 [judge
should report attorney who, the judge concluded, had sought to deceive
the court and "repeatedly acted in an extremely unprofessionallnanner
in defiance of court directives"]).
3. Cover-up to benefit a colleague and/or friend (Matter ofSchilling [judge
engineered a scheme to fix a Speeding ticket issued to the wife of a
colleague by effectively erasing all copies of the ticket from the system]
[removal]).
4. Cover-up to conceal wrongdoing and avoid public exposure and
embarrassment (Matter ofMarshall [judge altered court calendar to
conceal that she had disposed of four cases prior to the scheduled court
date] [removal]; Matter ofKadur [judge made false entries in court
doculnents, deliberately Inisspelling her son's name in order to conceal
that she had presided over her son's cases] [removal]).
5. Using judicial office in a Inanner that undermines confidence in the
judiciary (Matter ofGelfand, 70 NY2d 211,216 [1987] [judge based
staffing decisions in his court to further his interests in maintaining a
personal relationship with a court employee; his "repeated misuse of his
judicial powers... [was] inimical to his role as ajudge"] [removal]).
In the determination finding censure appropriate, the majority agrees with
each finding by the Referee and adds to the culpability of respondent by essentially
concluding that he lied to the Commission about the motives for his misconduct.
8
Without using that inflammatory term, the majority states that respondent's "explanations
for his failure to share information with law enforcement are unconvincing"
(Determination, p. 19). And the majority finds: "Nor are we persuaded by respondent's
explanation that he did not contact other agencies so as not to interfere with ongoing
investigations and to avoid the appearance that he was misusing his judicial prestige in
order to obtain information" (Determination, p. 19). Usually, when we conclude that a
respondent has not told us the truth, even about his motives, we do not indulge
mitigation. E.g., Matter ofMarshall, 8 NY3d 741 (2008); Matter ofMason, 100 NY2d
56 (2003); Matter ofGelfand, 70 NY2d 211 (1987). I recognize that the Court of
Appeals has warned us that lack of candor as an aggravating factor should be used
cautiously when applied to testimony regarding ajudge's subjective intentions (Matter of
Kiley, 74 NY2d 364, 370-71 [1989]). But when the record compels us to reject the
judge's testimony about his motivations, it is certainly proper to note our concerns and
test any claimed mitigation against those credibility issues.
In asserting that mitigation supports censure rather than removal, the best
the majority can muster is the very essence of respondent's misconduct - that
"respondent's judgment was clouded by his long professional association with an
attorney who had served as counsel for several decades" (Determination, p. 22). Why the
Inajority has lost its bearings in this case is a total mystery to me. Perhaps it is unduly
influenced by the impending end of respondent's term (Determination, p. 23). If so, say
so. Perhaps the dismissal of several other charges based on the Referee's findings
influenced my colleagues. Perhaps respondent's engaging personality at our hearing
9
clouded clear judgment. Or perhaps excellent lawyering on his behalf led the Inajority
astray. I am perplexed and disappointed in the lack of accountability this case will
convey to others.
What I do know is that this is one of the most egregious cases that has ever
been litigated before this Commission during the nine years that I have served. To allow
respondent to escape relnoval on these undisputed facts out of deference or undue
leniency towards a retiring judge degrades our function to a degree I have not yet
witnessed. Respondent's favoritism towards Lippman should not be compounded by our
favoritism towards him.
Dated: Decelnber 13, 2012
Richard D. Emery, Esq., Member
New York State
Commission on Judicial Conduct
10

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